Ehrman on Matthew—and How I Was Always the Cleaner
Is God Omniscient? Omnipresent? Playing the Abraham Card

Whittling a Deal Out of God

“Can you imagine having a conversation with God?” someone asks reverently—but maybe too reverently to strike a chord with the general population. “The very thought inspires awe—the Sovereign of the universe speaking to you! You hesitate at first, but then you manage to reply. He listens, he responds, and he even makes you feel free to ask any question you want.”

Let’s earthy the remark up a little bit—so as to reach people who don’t eat Bible sandwiches. I mean, nothing is wrong with the remark, nothing whatsoever. But maybe we can broaden its base of appeal.

He probably has in mind the latter third of Genesis chapter 18, because all Jehovahs Witnesses consider a sequential portion of scripture each week and this week it is Genesis 18 and 19.

Yeah—a conversation with God is something, all right—let alone wheeling & dealing with him, and seemingly emerging with the upper hand—that’s what happens when God and Abraham haggle over the future of Sodom. There is even a pejorative phrase about Jews in business, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this verse wasn’t pointed to as the underlying authority:

Then Abraham approached and said: “Will you really sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are 50 righteous men within the city. Will you, then, sweep them away and not pardon the place for the sake of the 50 righteous who are inside it? It is unthinkable that you would act in this manner by putting the righteous man to death with the wicked one so that the outcome for the righteous man and the wicked is the same! It is unthinkable of you. Will the Judge of all the earth not do what is right?” Then Jehovah said: “If I find in Sodʹom 50 righteous men in the city, I will pardon the whole place for their sake.”

But Abraham again responded: “Please, here I have presumed to speak to Jehovah, whereas I am dust and ashes. Suppose the 50 righteous should lack five. Because of the five will you destroy the whole city?” To this he said: “I will not destroy it if I find there 45.” But yet again he spoke to him and said: “Suppose 40 are found there.” He answered: “I will not do it for the sake of the 40.” But he continued: “Jehovah, please, do not become hot with anger, but let me go on speaking: Suppose only 30 are found there.” He answered: “I will not do it if I find 30 there.”

But he continued: “Please, here I have presumed to speak to Jehovah: Suppose only 20 are found there.” He answered: “I will not destroy it for the sake of the 20.” Finally he said: “Jehovah, please, do not become hot with anger, but let me speak just once more: Suppose only ten are found there.” He answered: “I will not destroy it for the sake of the ten.” When Jehovah finished speaking to Abraham, he went his way and Abraham returned to his place. (Genesis 18:23-33)

He outmaneuvered God! Look, I don’t do pejoratives here—I really don’t. I don’t want anyone coming after me saying that I do. On the other hand, every phrase has a etymology. Is this where the expression “jewing someone down” comes from?

These days, the ones who seem to me most behind the negotiating curve is Westerners—everyone else has learned to copy Abraham handily. As immigrants and refugees step from sinking islands onto ones that seem more stable, they bring extraordinary wheeling and dealing skills with them. If there is a marketplace back home—watch out! Westerners see the price tag, gulp, and reach down into their purse. ‘Foreigners’ see that price tag and regard it as a most interesting opening bid for negotiation.

Nguyen was my all-time hero in this. He left me speechless as he related picking up his new Toyota from the dealer. He circled it carefully. He spied something out of place and pounced upon it. “What’s this?!” he cried. “This is not my car! This is not the one I ordered! I don’t want it!”

The salesman was nervous. He had already given away half the store negotiating with this fellow. Of course it was his car. Nguyen pointed to a spot. “That was not on my car! I don’t want this one!”

“Oh,” the salesman sighed with relief. ”That is just the dealer sticker. We put that on all cars we sell” Nguyen gasped in disbelief. “You want me to advertise for you—for free?!” By the time he was done, he’s whittled a few more hundred out of the poor fellow.

“I hadn’t actually planned to do that,” he told me later with a smile. “It just occurred to me that moment.”

And as far as I know, before studying the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses, he’d never heard of Abraham.

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